Saturday, February 19, 2011

Enjoyment, not Tolerance

William Blake
The word "tolerance" is often used as if it were the key virtue pertaining to human diversity -- diversity of race, religion, cultural background, and so forth. Yet if we reflect on how the word is used otherwise, it seems like a somewhat odd choice, since typically we only take about tolerating something bad, not something good. Nobody takes about tolerating nice weather, or tolerating a delicious meal. Rather, we tolerate headaches, rainy days, rude in-laws. Therefore, the implicit assumption behind the word "tolerance" is that human diversity is something we would rather be without, though, for whatever reason, we have decided to put up with it.

Perhaps in some cases this really does describe our way of thinking. When it comes to religion, for instance, we might prefer that everyone were of our (true) belief, but as it stands we are willing to tolerate diversity of cult and creed for the sake of freedom of belief. In some cases of cultural diversity, we might tolerate certain customs we find aberrant or distasteful (though not blatantly immoral) for the sake of getting along. You might detest the taste of goat, but you're willing to tolerate that in some cultures it is a staple food (particularly when those cultures live on the first floor and you on the second).

However, it seems like we are giving short shrift to human diversity if we fail to realize that the proper response to it is often enjoyment, not "tolerance." The fact that people come in different shapes and colors is a beautiful, God-given fact, not a disagreeable inconvenience. "Tolerating" white and black human beings is like tolerating white and black flowers. The diverse forms of dance, cuisine or even cinema that prevail all around the world should be a source of pleasure, as they so often are. Is having Greek, Indian, Italian, Mexican, French, Lebanese and Southern Soul Food restaurants within easy reach a cause for tolerance, or enjoyment?

Tolerance, though, is not the only virtue we cast in negative terms. "Chastity" too often means "not having sex," rather than having sex the way it's meant to be had--in the context of a loving and serious commitment of body, mind and soul--and not otherwise. "Sobriety" often means "not getting drunk or high," rather than as having the cheerful clarity of mind which is the consequence of such abstinence. In the realm of human diversity, too, the problem is framed only as the battle against racism and prejudice. That is assuredly a battle that must be fought, but it can be won only in positive terms -- by actually going out and being friends, neighbors or even family (in the case of marriage) with people of other races, cultures and religions.

Abdu'l-Baha, when he visited the United States, advocated interracial marriage (illegal at the time in many states) as a concrete expression of human unity. He explains that human diversity is the ornament, and not the weakness, of humankind:
As difference in degree of capacity exists among human souls, as difference in capability is found, therefore, individualities will differ one from another. But in reality this is a reason for unity and not for discord and enmity. If the flowers of a garden were all of one color, the effect would be monotonous to the eye; but if the colors are variegated, it is most pleasing and wonderful. The difference in adornment of color and capacity of reflection among the flowers gives the garden its beauty and charm. Therefore, although we are of different individualities, . . . let us strive like flowers of the same divine garden to live together in harmony. Even though each soul has its own individual perfume and color, all are reflecting the same light, all contributing fragrance to the same breeze which blows through the garden, all continuing to grow in complete harmony and accord.
-- quoted in "Unity in Diversity."

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